WASHINGTON — Whatever
Instead of building on his legacy, he'll be defending it. Instead of helping to nurture his Democratic Party as an elder statesman, he'll be helping to rebuild it — finding new generational leaders who can carry the banner in future elections.
And instead of providing friendly counsel to President
"Obama's post-presidency just got exponentially more interesting," said Cody Foster, a
"Whereas he might have focused on building upon policies created during his administration, he must now defend his administration's legacy," Foster said. "Every policy, every veto, every word must now be carefully defended against an incoming leader eager to blindly press 'undo' on everything that Obama created. And President Trump can do that because he has a
It's Obama's relationship with Trump that will likely be most scrutinized. Presidents have often relied on their predecessors for advice, support and even some sensitive diplomacy. In return, modern presidents have avoided public criticism of their successors — although they've sometimes conducted freelance foreign policy in a way that's flummoxed the incumbent, as with
"I don’t see him immediately becoming a Jimmy Carter-like thorn in the new president's side," said Anthony Clark, author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies. "But I also think he's going to be more critical than previous presidents have been. He's going to have to find a way to be anti-Trump without appearing to be anti-Trump."
After the election, Obama himself described that tightrope as having "less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle" but about "core questions about our values and our ideals."
In recent weeks, Obama has begun to talk more specifically about the role he'll play in partisan politics after the election. At his end-of-the-year press conference, Obama said he sees a role in giving "counsel and advice" to the Democratic Party in an effort to reach areas of the country where Democrats have not performed well — places where he said "Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically correct, out-of-touch folks."
Obama said he'll also work to rebuild a Democratic Party that's been decimated over the course of his presidency. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections. But since 2010, Democrats have lost thousands of downballot races — the congressional seats, governor's mansions, state legislative districts and local offices that form a kind of bench for a political party.
"With respect to my priorities when I leave, it is to build that next generation of leadership; organizers, journalists, politicians. I see them in America, I see them around the world, 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who are just full of talent, full of idealism," he said. "And the question is how do we link them up? How do we give them the tools for them to bring about progressive change? And I want to use my presidential center as a mechanism for developing that next generation of talent."
"But the day-to-day scrum, not only is it contrary to tradition for the ex-president to be involved in that, but I also think would inhibit the development of those new voices," Obama said.
That's not a departure from past presidents, Clark said, but Obama may be a bit more upfront about using his foundation as a party-building tool.
"Prior to the election, my thought was that both the library and the foundation would be more in line with Jimmy Carter, who spent more time on his foundation and less on his library," Clark said. "Now, I see it more like the Reagan Presidential Center, which is the altar on which rising conservative stars must go to become baptized."
In one signal of how Obama intends to use his Chicago presidential center, he appointed David Simas to be the CEO of the Obama Foundation last month. Simas rose up through Massachusetts politics, working for then-governor
Obama's ambitious plans for a presidential library in Chicago have come a long way since the beginning of his presidency. In the 2011 book The Promise, journalist
Now, he has a foundation raising millions to build his presidential library and endow his foundation. The foundation won't discuss specific fundraising goals, but the cost of a president's library has doubled for each of the last three presidencies.
Though the latter part of his presidency, Obama has also talked about a litany of places he wants to return to and issues he wants to be involved in: the minority mentoring program My Brother's Keeper, his various global youth development programs, criminal justice reform, gun control and nuclear non-proliferation.
Foster sees Obama settling into a role as a sort of citizen-diplomat — a position pioneered by former
"Look, I have to be quiet for a while," Obama told Axelrod. "I don't mean politically, I mean internally. I have to still myself. You have to get back in tune with your center and process what's happened before you make a bunch of good decisions."
"My intention on January 21 is to sleep, take my wife on a nice vacation — and she has said it better be nice," he said. They'll stay in Washington until their younger daughter graduates from high school, and Obama is still under contract to write a book that's been on hold during his presidency.
But after a year or two, he said, there may be an issue that he may feel compelled to weigh in. "You know, I'm still a citizen, and that carries with it duties and obligations," he said.
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